PokerDivas founder Ellen Leikind was recently featured in HR Daily Advisor‘s HR Query column.
By Bianca Herron, Editor, HR Daily Advisor Staff
Playing poker is more than a form of entertainment – it’s a game of skills. Whether you’re a C-suite executive, middle manager, new recruit or team player, playing poker can help you learn how to overcome arduous situations, grow professionally, and improve your business skills. It can even teach you strategy, how to endure and deal with pressure, communication skills, and self-confidence.
Our guest for this week’s HR Query, Ellen Leikind, believes that poker is also a great equalizer. Leikind is the founder of PokerDivas, a company that employs the fundamental principles and strategies of poker to help people develop leadership and negotiation skills. She has helped some of the biggest companies focused on DEI initiatives including Women at Wharton Leadership, Association of Black Women Attorneys, and The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
“Our events are engaging, inclusive, and make everyone feel welcome taking their seat at the table,” Leikind shared with HR Daily Advisor. “There is no corporate hierarchy at the poker table, everyone has the same chance of success. Our programs reshape the work environment and help colleagues look beyond superficialities, moving beyond the simple ‘me’ of getting ahead in the business world to focus on the ‘we’ of team building. Players are diverse at the table, and everyone is given the same chance to play, strategize, and win. It’s not about gambling, but rather about building confidence, learning to read people, becoming a better negotiator and being assertive and bold when it really counts.”
We recently chatted with Leikind to find out how PokerDivas is used to facilitate DEI, helps personally and professionally, its biggest takeaways, and more.
Here’s what she had to say.
Why did you start PokerDivas?
EL: I founded PokerDivas because I saw how women were being excluded from poker much like they were from golf. The strategic skills learned from the game and the access it provides for networking is a career accelerator. Women were missing out. I worked in corporate America for many years and saw how this impacted career progression. When you learn the game, you see it’s not really about the cards. It’s about people, behavior, gaining confidence and taking risk. It’s a mindset of getting into the play to win as opposed to avoid losing mode. Over the years the program has expanded and is not limited to women.
You’ve said poker is a great equalizer. How so?
EL: There is no corporate hierarchy at the poker table. Everyone starts on a level playing field with the same deck of cards and the same chip stack. You use the talents you have, and everyone has the same chance of winning. It breaks down barriers and allows a CEO to sit next to a junior manager with the same chance of success. The winner makes the same amount of money regardless of gender, race, age, physical ability, or anything else. Everyone feels like an equal and has the same chance to play, strategize, and win.
You’ll also notice that people playing the same game often take different approaches towards winning. Some are ultra-aggressive bettors, some rely more on sizing up the people, others play strictly by the numbers. Different approaches and all viable ways to win. Everyone learns from each other’s play. As I talk about in my book PokerWoman: How to Win in Love, Life and Business using the Principles of Poker, while poker is often perceived solely as a game of luck it is not. It is skill-based, and everyone can learn these skills.
What are the biggest takeaways from your programs?
EL: There are a lot of lessons learned but one of the biggest takeaways is learning to play to win as opposed to avoid losing. Participants walk away feeling empowered with confidence negotiating and taking risks. They are also more in tune to managing different personality types and how to switch up their “game” based on the players. This is a critical skill in life and business as we are constantly navigating people and personalities. Not everyone sees things the same way and not everyone is motivated by the same thing.
For some it’s money, for others it’s flexibility or recognition, or perhaps stability and security. If you understand what drives people, you become much more proficient and connected. Participants get to know themselves as well as their team in a new light. Plus, they’ve had a great time and a sense of accomplishment learning a new skill they can use forever.
You talk about playing to win as opposed to avoid losing. What does that mean and how does it play into equality?
EL: Playing to win is a position of strength. Playing not to lose comes from a place of fear. The game teaches genders and cultures that may not be comfortable negotiating assertiveness, which is often outside their comfort zone. In that way it helps reduce one of the barriers that perpetuate pay gaps and moves us toward equality.
If you are looking for a promotion or new client in the winning mindset you ask for it. You are confident in what you bring to the table, what you can offer in the future and getting what you are worth. Getting in the play to win mode requires you to be crystal clear about what you want and what you deliver and having no hesitation letting others know how good you are. That is a mentality that everyone has access to. I’m not saying it’s always easy to get in that headspace, but everyone has that opportunity.
When you are playing not to lose you often don’t ask because you are afraid you will fail, or seem greedy, or too aggressive. This is the case even when you have the goods. Studies have shown that this attitude impacts women more frequently. When you are in this fear mode you don’t excel to your potential, and you lose out as does the employer and/or clients.
Your programs are used to facilitate DEI. In what other ways can HR use the PokerDivas program in their organization?
EL: In addition to women’s initiatives and other DEI programs, HR teams can use PokerDivas team building programs to vet candidates, introduce new teams to each other, welcome and recruit summer associates and interns, and engage an introverted group. It’s interesting because the game brings out your true personality. We have one client of engineers who are not at all extroverted but once they start the exercises, start learning the game and connect with the people at the table, the energy changes and they start to gel. PokerDivas builds camaraderie in an educational and entertaining environment. It’s a win/win for all. We also offer a virtual networking club follow up so people can stay connected. The PokerDivas program is not designed to create professional poker players. There is no gambling and no money involved. The poker strategy and game activity provide a hands-on interactive experience which encourages everyone to help each other play their best game.
Have you kept in touch with people who have attended your events and how has it helped them both personally and professionally?
EL: We are fortunate to have tens of thousands of people come through the PokerDivas program, some multiple times over the last decade. The most frequent feedback is how they were more confident negotiating not only for their teams and companies but for themselves. One woman got promoted to a Partner in a law firm because she finally got the confidence to simply ask. She had been intimidated by a male partner and had avoided the situation thinking she would get the promotion based on her performance. It didn’t happen that way, so she took the initiative and bet on herself and made it happen. We also hear from clients how they learned how to deal with difficult people more effectively improving relationships and productivity.